Labor Unions

Peru Table of Contents

The labor movement in Peru has traditionally been weak, and its fate, until 1968, was inextricably linked to APRA. Very much affected by the enclave or anti-union enterprises and by the rural or community background of many of its members, labor was unable to articulate a coherent set of class interests. APRA, with its organizational capacity and popular following, was perhaps the only existing mobilization vehicle for organized labor. APRA dominated the Confederation of Peruvian Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores del Perú--CTP), which it founded in 1944 and which was officially recognized in 1964. The major labor dispute was traditionally between the CTP and APRA, and there was a direct correlation between union activity and the legal status of APRA, which was usually banned by military governments. APRA was more concerned with using the labor movement for its own ends than with enhancing the objectives of organized labor. APRA curtailed strike activity, for example, during its years of collaboration with the government of Manuel Prado y Ugarteche (1939-45, 1956-62).

Union activity increased dramatically during the military years with the introduction of a new labor code and the Industrial Reform Law, culminating in the union-led general strikes of 1977 and 1978. Yet, the labor and industries laws, which made it more difficult to dismiss a worker in Peru than in any industrialized nation, acted as a major disincentive to formal sector employment. This, coupled with the dramatic economic decline of the 1980s, led to a substantial decrease in the relative power of labor unions by 1990.

After 1968 the communist labor movement, the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú--CGTP), was legalized and began to erode APRA's monopoly on union support, owing in part to the party's relinquishing its radical stance. The Federation of Workers of the Peruvian Revolution (Central de Trabajadores de la Revolución Peruana--CTRP), which was set up by the military as an attempt to control the workers' movement, never really got off the ground, particularly in the face of the powerful CGTP. In 1991 the CGTP remained the most important union confederation in Peru.

The traits that were held typical of APRA union support-- marginal, socially ambitious, and socially frustrated--began to characterize the Maoist left and its affiliated unions under the CGTP umbrella in the 1970s. These groups, such as the powerful teachers' union, the Trade Union of Education Workers (Sindicato nico de Trabajadores de la Enseñanza--SUTEP), and the miners' confederation, the National Federation of Syndicated Mining and Metallurgical Workers of Peru (Federación Nacional de Trabajadores Mineros y Metalúrgicos Sindicalistas del Perú-- FNTMMSP), were key actors in the general strikes that virtually brought down the military regime in the late 1970s. In addition, the expansion of state industries, each of which had its own affiliated union, substantially increased the number of organized workers.

By the early 1980s, economic decline began to erode the power of unions, as did the neoliberal strategy adhered to by the Belaúnde government. The APRA government completely bypassed organized labor, as it did organized industry in its concertación strategy. García's populist tactics left little room for organized labor. Although there was a high number of strikes by state sector workers during the García government, particularly during the last two "crisis" years, they were generally more defensive, in the face of economic decline, than political. Most of the general strikes that were called during the García government were largely a failure, attaining only minimal support.

One reason that organized labor was less able to pursue political goals was the SL, which launched several "armed strikes" in various cities throughout the García years. Although these had varying degrees of success, they rarely had union support, as supporting the strikes meant supporting the SL. Increasingly, street protest for political purposes signified support for armed insurrection, which the majority of unions rejected. Indeed, there were even violent clashes between the SL and the CGTP during one general strike.

The SL had its own affiliated union, the Class Movement of Workers and Laborers (Movimiento de Obreros y Trabajadores Clasistas--MOTC), which operated primarily in the industries along Lima's Central Highway (Trans-Andean Highway), the industrial belt of the city. Of the four major companies along this highway, the MOTC had made substantial inroads in three. The MOTC did not necessarily control unions, but was tenacious in its support of strikes and was able to establish a strong presence in these industries. Yet, it also created rifts in the labor movement in general, because many workers did not necessarily want to be affiliated with the SL. Indicative of the extent of conflict was the SL's killing of fifty-one union leaders, primarily mineworkers, between January and May 1989, and its assassination of a prominent textile leader in October 1989.

The one labor sector that was able to exert substantial pressure during the APRA government was the miners' federation, the FNTMMSP, which in 1989 staged a strike involving 90,000 miners and costing the government hundreds of millions of dollars in lost export earnings. Meanwhile, the federation was also targeted by the SL. Although able to infiltrate the union to some extent, staging armed strikes and attacking mining facilities, the SL was by no means able to gain control of it. Nevertheless, the SL's presence caused violence from both the left (there were clashes between the SL and nonsympathetic miners) and the right (the leader of the miners' federation was assassinated by the APRA- and military-linked paramilitary squad, the Rodrigo Franco Command). Finally, some critics felt that the government and the National Mining and Petroleum Company (Sociedad Nacional de Minería y Petróleo--SNMP) found the SL infiltration of the mines a convenient excuse for declaring a state of emergency in the region.

Only 15 to 20 percent of the labor force was unionized in 1990, making that force a rather privileged sector of the working class. Underemployment was as high as 75 percent; and only 9 percent of Lima's economically active population was fully employed.

The prospects for the union movement in Peru in the early 1990s were dismal at best. On the one hand, the economic crisis made access to a job a luxury. Protest by organized labor was a last attempt at protecting salary levels that had deteriorated by over 50 percent in the 1985-90 period. On the other, the SL's drive to establish influence among organized labor presented a challenge to all the unions that wished to retain their independence.

In the event of an economic recovery and the adoption of a more realistic labor code that did not make access to a job a privilege for a small minority, organized labor might be able to enhance its status as the protector of workers rights rather than the proponent of political radicalism. Still, these developments also hinged on the defeat of the foremost proponent of radicalism, the SL--an unlikely scenario in the short term.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress